Thinking Big about Gifted Education: The Davidson Academy of Nevada
Davidson Institute Communications Staff
WorldGifted - Newsletter of The World Council for Gifted and Talented Children
Vol. 29, No. 2
July 2010

This article provides information about the Davidson Academy of Nevada, the first free, public school of its kind in the United States for profoundly gifted middle and high school students.

A common misperception is that profoundly gifted students have an easy time in school and get straight A’s without studying, and that this lack of challenge is acceptable. However, this is a false assumption. All students, including the gifted, need to be nurtured with access to an education that helps them learn and achieve at a level appropriate to their abilities, rather than just their age.

This belief - that when we set limits based on age, we limit students’ potential and their contributions to humanity - led Bob and Jan Davidson to establish The Davidson Academy of Nevada in 2006. The Davidsons are gifted education philanthropists and former educational software entrepreneurs. In 1999, they founded the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a national nonprofit that supports profoundly gifted young people under the age of 18 with programs including educational advocacy, talent development, scholarships and a summer camp. These students and their families often asked the Davidsons if they would start a school for the profoundly gifted, and that led to the creation of The Davidson Academy.

Currently in its fourth school year, The Davidson Academy is the first free, public school of its kind in the United States for profoundly gifted middle and high school students.

“They believe in trying different things and if certain things don’t work, don’t do them anymore and if other things work, build on that. That’s a very different way of running a school than you are going to see in most institutions,” said Dr. Jon Wade, Davidson Academy parent.

Located on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, The Davidson Academy seeks to provide students with an advanced educational opportunity matched to their abilities, strengths and interests. Unlike many traditional school settings, the Academy’s classes are not grouped by age-based grades, but by ability level. Students can subject accelerate through required middle and high school curriculum at their own pace with access to University courses when appropriate.

"All of the kids here are really invested in academic success and the teachers and advisors are dedicated to helping us with our goals,” said Davidson Academy student Chloe Williamson. “The Academy has allowed me to achieve things I never would have thought possible."

To gain admission to The Davidson Academy of Nevada, prospective students must:

  • score 99.9% or above on accepted intelligence tests and/or on the ACT, SAT or Explore test;

  • perform at an academic level of advanced middle school or higher in all subjects;

  • exhibit superior intellectual development and academic achievement;

  • demonstrate motivation, social and emotional maturity, and overall readiness for an accelerated educational environment; and

  • be, or intend to be, residents of Nevada.

Applicants must also submit a completed application form, in addition to letters of recommendation from teachers and mentors. The admissions staff focuses heavily on goodness of fit – they look at the whole child, not just grades and test scores. The Davidson Academy is a different type of school and the staff wants to ensure that any student who attends will be successful with the fast-paced curriculum. To this end, the Academy hosts monthly tours and assessments, where prospective students can tour the school, meet the faculty and students and get a sense of what the school is like. The Davidson Academy is growing steadily from 35 students the first year to 91 today.

“We really look at the whole child, not just the academic side of the students when we work with them. So it’s a very dynamic environment,” said Davidson Academy Director Colleen Harsin. “They make great social connections in the context of learning their academics.”

Since The Davidson Academy is a nonresidential day school, families who do not currently live in the Reno area must move for their students to attend the school. This is a major commitment for any parent to make for a child’s education, and the fact that families have moved to Reno from around the United States, and one family from Australia, speaks volumes. Approximately half of the Academy’s families have moved to Reno from out of state.

Many students who had previously been withdrawn and underachieving at school come to the Academy. Once they find a community of like-minded peers and a curriculum that they can embrace, they flourish academically and socially. Academy students can laugh, play basketball and discuss Greek philosophy together, simultaneously fitting in and moving forward.

"One of the other great parts about the Academy is the atmosphere, the people, and all the social opportunities presented by going to school with intellectual peers who think on the same level and at the same speed as I do," said David Ellison, Davidson Academy student.

The Davidson Academy seeks to match the education to the student, rather than requiring students to conform to a curriculum that doesn’t meet their needs. One crucial aspect of achieving this goal is the Personalized Learning Plan (PLP). The purpose of the PLP is to deepen and strengthen the learning experience for all Davidson Academy students, consistent with The Davidson Academy’s philosophy of treating students as individuals who are invested in their own learning. The PLP is essentially a road map to help the student, parents and Academy staff determine where the student is and how to help them realize their academic goals.

“My classes are challenging, but really fun. We move at a faster pace, getting more done in shorter time. I learn beyond my textbooks, taking my knowledge further than what happens within the classroom,” said Davidson Academy student Dylan Bowman.

Davidson Academy students follow a core curriculum, based in English, mathematics, history and science, to fulfill Academy graduation requirements. Classes are taught at an advanced level with high expectations, and strong emphasis is placed on critical thinking across all subjects. The Academy is a “writing-across-the-curriculum” school, meaning that the ability to write clearly is integrated into all classes, regardless of the subject matter. Course credit is given at both the middle and high school level, and students frequently utilize both levels of the curriculum simultaneously as they progress through the Academy.

“I do meet all the state standards, but my curriculum is shaped by the students,” said Larry Kramp, Davidson Academy Instructor. “They tell me what they want to learn and what’s interesting to them, and I fit that into the curriculum.”

At The Davidson Academy, the faculty and administration believe that academics is only one component of a child’s education and development. In keeping with the whole child philosophy, there are numerous clubs and extracurricular activities available to students. From student council and drama club to a community service club, students are encouraged to develop all of their talents in order to become contributing members of their communities.

"There are numerous advantages that the Academy has over the average middle/high school – the availability of University courses, a great environment full of very supportive people, and more. It offers many opportunities that can’t be found elsewhere," said Andy Wei, Davidson Academy graduate.

As students move through The Davidson Academy, they do so with a set of core values that they have developed with the administration. These core values of responsibility, integrity, balance, leadership, pursuit of knowledge and respect inspire the students both academically and in their growth as young adults.

“I really wanted to go here mostly because of the challenge, but I really didn’t know socially it would be great too,” said Katie Daw, Davidson Academy student. “There are so many different personalities here. It’s so lively all the time.”

The belief that the education should fit the child, instead of requiring the child to conform to the education, is the guiding force behind The Davidson Academy of Nevada. Bob and Jan Davidson are “Thinking Big about Gifted Education” and encourage the rest of the world to do the same.

"My decision to attend the Academy has created a new chapter in my life - one filled with exciting opportunities, a fulfilling academic and social environment, and friends that I hope to be in contact with for a long time" said Misha Raffiee, Davidson Academy student.

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